Although this hasn’t been an easy time for most, some people are coping with pandemic life better than others.
That’s to be expected. I know a few people, however, who aren’t merely coping, they’re actually thriving. At least a half-dozen friends of mine are using the down time to recalibrate and are living their best lives. One, in particular, despite living entirely alone, has adjusted so successfully that folks are calling him for advice.
His name is Mike Webster. I’ve known him for years, but we don’t hang out all that often. I decided to give him a call, though, to ask him why his experience has been so positive. It was a long conversation in which four things kept coming up: resiliency, diet, meditation and nature.
“I’ve watched a lot of my friends unravel and not understand who they are anymore,” says Webster. “It’s like, ‘If I don’t do this thing every day, I don’t know who I am.’
“I think a lot of people are frustrated by the idea that their creative outlets have been cut off, but now is the time to understand that you can do all that on your own.”
Webster speaks from experience. In pre-pandemic times, he fell out with business partners at two different cocktail bars he worked on from the ground floor, cutting him off from his craft: designing menus, playing host, setting the atmosphere and making drinks. He thinks that experience has taught him how to channel that energy into other projects, such as writing, eating well and exercising, working on his comedy routine and, possibly most importantly, connecting with nature, both outside the city and as an indoor gardener. Since the pandemic, he’s been even more focused on all of these things.
Now, this is only the experience of one human, so it’s hard to make any claims that this is the path forward for the masses. But I wanted to see if Webster’s experience resonated with any experts, starting with David Strayer, a professor at the department of psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Utah.
“The idea of biophilia, the love of living things, goes back a long way, and we’ve been doing a lot of research trying to look at how the body, the brain, the cardiovascular system and immune system are rejuvenated when we’re in natural environments,” says Strayer.
“It tends to reduce stress and you see lower levels of cortisol. You see changes in blood pressure and in how the heart beats. You see changes in the T-cells (part of the adaptive immune system) and you see electrophysiological changes that take place in the brain when we’re in nature and around green things, so that’s something that would be consistent with our research.”
Webster thinks a lot of those coping well with the changes and challenges wrought by the pandemic are also indulging their biophilia — even if they haven’t thought about it that way — whether they’re fostering ducklings, starting indoor water gardens or backyard birding. And, again, this is purely anecdotal, but a lot of the people I have seen on social media doing well happen to be birding, gardening or growing their own sourdough starters.
We may even be on to something. Turns out even really small steps that we make to connect with plants and non-human animals can reap rewards, says Bill Howatt, author of the recently released “Stop Hiding and Start Living: How to Say F-It to Fear and Develop Mental Fitness.”
“The No. 1 coping skill I found in my studies of people dealing with the pandemic was pet therapy,” says Howatt, founder and president of Howatt HR Consulting. “The thing that’s really important about it is being in the moment and having a positive distraction that moves you away from worry and into a sense of fulfilment or accomplishment.”
He notes that hobbies, mindfulness, journaling and meditation are all similar things that research on “neuroplasticity” (the brain’s ability to change and restructure itself by building new neural pathways) is revealing to be important for brain health. It’s not all cerebral, he says, since diet plays a big role.
“A lot of people don’t realize that serotonin is not made in your head,” he explains. “Ninety per cent of it is made in your gut, so what you put in your body can change your happiness levels.”
Aside from gardening, Webster focused intently on diet, physical fitness and meditation after he parted ways with his former business partners. And, since some of his identity was wrapped up in his role as a bar owner, he worked on those things as a way to get through what he describes as the “ego-death” that goes along with a massive career change.
“It’s all good,” he says. “Everything is meant to be and I may be blessed with the previous experience so I can move on from setbacks more quickly. Whatever you want to call it, it really does prepare you for something like this.”
Again, this lines up remarkably well with Howatt, whose book is all about how being open to learning from failures is a key component of mental fitness. Howatt, himself, failed the second grade, and it wasn’t until he was a young adult that he overcame a learning disability and went on to finish multiple degrees, become an author and establish a human resources consulting business.
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“I think the thing with many people is that we live in a society that has some false expectations around perfection,” he says. “We don’t allow ourselves to realize that anything we do in our life will require some amount of failure. So instead of looking at a failure as a negative, we need to reframe that failure as an opportunity to learn.”
The pandemic, obviously, is no one person’s failure. To the many who have lost businesses or been cut off from careers that helped define them, it might feel that way.
There’s almost certainly no one cookie-cutter solution. Finding a way out isn’t going to be as simple as getting a puppy or taking a walk in the park — but it might be a start. And it’s going to be important to figure out the coping skills we each need to reframe this setback as an opportunity for change.
Some people might even emerge with a whole new outlook on life.
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